How was there nothing in the beginning?
When I set out to do the sermon series “Ask Almost Anything” on the suggestion of our awesome Technical Director at First UMC, Princeton, I assumed I would get questions dealing with the burning issues of the day…abortion, sexuality, and as shown from the last blog entry – divorce. I assumed these questions would come up because, well, they are questions that are on the hearts and minds of people everyday. And yes, the majority of our questions fell into a category I would call “social” questions.
Yet, every once in a while, someone would text in with what I would call a purely “theological” question like the one I am answering today – “How was there nothing in the beginning?” [This question takes me back to Divinity School days when I studied such things as creatio ex nihilio (creation from nothing) and creatio ex materia (creation out of some external matter) and creatio ex deo (creation out of the very being of God). However interesting the arguments may be for each of these positions they end up being just that…positions in arguments that one person likes and another person doesn’t. Talking about them doesn’t usually get us anywhere fruitful.]
One of the very many things that I have learned in 20+ years of serving as a pastor is: “there is no such thing as a ‘purely theological’ question.” I keep this in mind whenever I am asked something like this. It keeps me from slipping back into one of those “positions” and into language that most of the time is just, well, boring. There is usually something more to the question than just wanting to know about the “beginning of things” and there is something more than just wanting to ask a question that might stump someone…or at least make them think really, really hard.
Since these questions were given to me anonymously, I really don’t have any way of knowing what the question behind the question might be but for the sake of this answer, I am guessing that this person, whoever they may be, was wondering about the truthfulness of Scripture.
Most translations of Genesis 1:1-2 have the two verses separated as two complete sentences. The NRSV – which I happen to prefer most of the time – does not. It reads:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Translation differences such as this one leads to the arguments about creation out of nothing, or creation being an “ordering” of chaos, or finally creation being something that came forth from God. The two sentence translations lean toward “out of nothing” and the single sentence translations lean toward the “ordering of creation out of chaos.” Either translation could be used for the idea that God created out of God’s own being.
What all these have in common and what ALL the translations of the Bible hold is that God was there in the beginning. So, there has never been a time when there was “nothing”. God has always been. God is. God will always be. (Perhaps that is why God gave Moses the name “I am” when asked! God simply is.) On a side note…it is hard for me to imagine the existence of “nothing.” Like “darkness,” which is really just the absence of light, “nothing” is the absence of “anything.” Therefore, if “nothing” can’t exist on it’s own. It’s just not logically possible.
So, even though the question of where this universe came from in the “beginning” is one that will be debated for a long time, the answer we choose doesn’t effect the Truth that Scripture is attempting to allow us to grasp – God created…therefore God was there in the beginning. Scripture can be trusted to impart to us Truth…even if it isn’t as clear as to how to understand the truth that comes from that Truth. (Yes…the use of capital letters is important here.) Our task is to concentrate on the Truth – for that is what points us to God.
(And yes…I intend to see Star Trek this weekend!) 🙂 “Live long and prosper!”
Nest question: “What is the best way, when reading the Bible, to grasp a better understanding if you are unable to go to a study group?”